Getting the Stories Straight

What are you telling me? Ecumenical dialogues have been taking place for 50+ years?! And have produced substantial officially recognized agreements?! I have heard these questions, with the exclamation marks, too many times from well-meaning and committed Anglicans, Roman Catholics and others. Yes, we have been in conversation with one another for a good half a century; yes, we have published official statements on several aspects of our faith in Christ Jesus. And yes, this growing ecclesial relationship is bearing profound positive fruit in both our churches. After frozen relations of several centuries, we are finally recognizing in one another the presence and witness of our risen Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. We are also recognizing the serious need to walk together as an expression of faithfulness to our Lord’s dying wish that we all be one. It is only in Christian charity and unity that the Gospel can be credibly preached into a hurting world.

The above questions point to the ongoing challenge of Reception, i.e. the process by which official statements trickle down to the ordinary people in our pews to be embraced in their local context. This challenge was once again the subject of the most recent National Anglican-Roman Catholic Dialogue (ARC Canada) meeting in Ottawa.

But this time there was good news to share. For the past two years the ARC Canada group has been collecting stories of lived ecumenism on the ground between Anglicans and Roman Catholics.  New Stories to Tell was launched in conjunction with the 2019 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. The collection is a rich tapestry of inspiring accounts in which individuals from both traditions rediscover our common heritage in Christ Jesus, thus contributing in no small measure to healing the wounds of our historic ecclesial divisions. Each story is followed by a brief theological reflection with references to one or more ARCIC documents, and by study/discussion questions.

The collection is dedicated to a renowned theology professor and ecumenist, Dr. Margaret O’Hara, who is considered a giant in her long-standing involvement in Anglican-Roman Catholic relations. Stories include experiences of interchurch families, bishops befriending each other and in some cases sharing living quarters (!), encounters at the TRC hearings, covenant agreements between dioceses, joint work with refugees, ecumenical retreats and parish missions, theological study groups etc.

Here is the opening story of this lovely new collection:

An Anglican priest shared the following experience: He had not come to this Truth and Reconciliation hearing with anger, and he had not come with blame. But he said that he wanted me, a Catholic priest, to know that he was not afraid anymore, nor ashamed of who he was. He was confident and secure and even proud of his identity as an Indigenous person, and he wanted me, wearing my clerical collar, to sit with him and hear that from him, because he had never been able to say that to any priest before.

It became clear that there was a misunderstanding. He had attended a school operated by the Roman Catholic Church in Canada, not the Anglican Church of Canada. I was an Anglican priest. So what were we to do? Should I offer a word of apology anyway? Or should we find a Catholic priest and start the process over again? Before I could decide, the man uttered: “Catholic… Anglican… It’s all the same. It was Christians who ran these schools and who did these things to my people. You are all responsible together. You all need our forgiveness. Maybe you should get your own stories straight before you talk to us.”

This encounter speaks clearly about our shared identity as Christians in the present, and about our dividedness in the past. It speaks clearly about our need for right relationship with Indigenous neighbours, as well as with one another, and about the way one relationship affects another. It points to the work of reconciliation as the way forward for healing. The Indigenous man in the above account speaks prophetically when he challenges us to “get our own stories straight” as churches. But already back in 1848, our divided heritage discredited us as messengers of the Gospel:

“Mr. Rundell (Rundle) [Wesleyan Methodist] told him that what he preached was the only true road to heaven, and Mr. Hunter [Anglican] told him the same thing, and so did Mr. Thebo (Fr. Thibault, Roman Catholic), and as they all three said that the other two were wrong, and as he did not know which was right, he thought they ought to call a council among themselves, and then he would go with all three; but that until they agreed he would wait.” [Great Plains Cree chief, Maskepatoon, in conversation with Paul Kane in 1848; James G. MacGregor. Father Lacombe. Edmonton: Hurtig Publishers, 1975]

We arrived in Canada as divided churches. Our separation was transmitted to Indigenous people during the earliest missions in New France and British North America. It was a stark reality in colonial life, as a Catholic majority came under the rule of an Empire whose established religion was Anglican. It continued to resonate in the ways the Protestant population expressed prejudice towards Catholics (who gladly returned the favour) and in the separateness of our educational, language, and legal identities.

That separateness is a reality which looms large in our present-day experiences as Christians together, and which affects the perceptions our society has of us, the stereotypes we have of one another, and the ministry we can offer. The work of ARC Canada, the Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue, and the stories of people and communities encountering one another in new ways, present a way forward. The path involves facing and reconciling memories, and making new history together.

The language of reconciliation and of right relationship is a gift we are learning, ever more deeply, from people like the Residential School survivor who challenges us to “get our stories straight.” The broken relationships which we Christians brought with us continue to affect the way we relate to the land, to its First Peoples, and to one another. Yearning for and coming back into right relationship involves all these aspects.

Ironically, in many other ways the world sees us as one even before we see our own unity. When it comes to negative press about one of our churches, we are all perceived in the same light. When it comes to martyrdom, we are not asked first whether we are Anglican, Lutheran, Catholic or Orthodox.  As Pope Francis stated a few years ago, to those who persecute and kill we are simply Christians.

Would that the world could see positive signs of our unity! For the sake of right relation and the integrity of Christ’s message of salvation and reconciliation, let’s get our stories straight.

New Stories to Tell, published by ARC Canada, can be accessed at www.churchesindialogue.ca

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Ready for Christmas?

It doesn’t matter where – in the checkout line-up, at the pool, at the post office, even in church. Everyone asks the big question, often in a hurried tone of voice: so,  ready for Christmas yet? I’m supposed to answer: no I’m not, too many gifts to buy and wrap, cards to write and to send, goodies to bake and decorations to hang up. I’m not ready!

Odd isn’t it? I mean this type of reply. I’m ready for Christmas, because I take the question to mean something quite different. Quiet daily prayer is enriched with the Advent wreath – lighting one more candle each week, keeping me anchored in essentials without drowning in waves of excessive consumerism. Dreams and yearnings are allowed to rise up in my heart, as God’s gifts growing in the womb of my spirit. Christmas baking gets done by loving hands way more competent than my own from annual Christmas bake-sales, filling the freezer (and eventually our tummies) while supporting a good cause.  We strive for quality time with our adult children and their families even with the challenge of irregular work hours; looks like a chess tournament is on the radar this year. Yearly donation checks are off to various charities, however small. Sharing is good for the soul and a blessing to others. Ready for Christmas? Yep.

Because our family Christmas takes place when everyone can make it, Jim and I have become regulars at the annual Community Christmas Dinner on December 25, organized by our friends from the local Soup Kitchen. A weekly meal free of charge is hosted throughout the year for anyone who needs food and company. You can find us there most Tuesdays, hanging out with a motley crew. We go not because we are “hard-up” but because we eat with friends who’ve expanded our notion of family. Helping out at the Christmas Dinner therefore is not only a great way to spend the holy day of Christ’s birth, but it is truly a day with family.

We do appreciate receiving Christmas letters from beloved family and friends; letters full of the latest travel adventures and the year’s achievements of children and grandchildren, and sometimes including the latest health challenges. Such letters are a great read. It’s the yearly catching up on news in the lives of loved ones.

But we don’t travel a whole lot anymore, and don’t even miss it. There’s hardly anything left on our bucket lists. We are most content and comfortable in our own bed, our own home, our own routines, our own garden and backyard (not fancy, just … lush). Do we sound like old folks set in our ways?? Or is it the quiet contentment and joy that comes from truly living a simple, modest life we both love and have no need to get away from? We do regret not seeing our granddaughters as often as we would like due to distance and work commitments. They are each growing way too fast into three lovely individuals, each with their unique personality. But we are grateful for photos on Facebook and video-calls. And we’ve been relatively healthy (not counting the hearing aids I’ve had to acquire this year), rarely accessing the health insurance we’ve been paying into for so many years — touch wood! So there isn’t much news to share.

Or maybe there is …

We learnt new things this past year, found new questions, gained new insights into relationships and into living a full life. We enjoy many blessings, right in our own home and community, even in the hardships. Once again we learnt that it’s not what happens to us that brings blessing or curse, but how we live what happens to us:

  • Ordinary days in our prairie towns (Humboldt and Watrous) burst with extraordinary little rays of light and joy, of love and of mercy. The abiding faithfulness of friends is nourishing food for the soul. New friends keep sprouting from the stubble of prairie fields, each one bearing gifts of vision and compassion, of invitations into new discoveries and into exploring different worlds.
  • On the other hand, our quiet community was rocked to the core last April by the Humboldt Broncos bus crash. Shock and grief have never been so close to home, never been so deep and so widespread, galvanizing the attention of the world. But even in the darkness of that tragedy, blessings were hiding: see Grieving in Community and April in Labour. For the first time I preached on empty, only to nd discover that tears in the pulpit sometimes preach more effectively than words.
  • We learnt that discord with loved ones, whether friends or family, is best lived as an invitation to look inside — how have we contributed to the breakdown? The resulting honesty, vulnerability and humility can then turn into a healing blessing. Own up, fess up, repair it — these virtues are keepers. Or when unjustly accused or treated, draw the boundaries firmer and forgive; don’t let anger poison your heart.
  • Just because it’s legal, doesn’t make it moral, ethical or desirable. We’re keeping our fingers crossed about legal pot, and other questionable practices. The best (and healthiest) highs come through healing hurts, cultivating a curious and open mind, and from seeking meaning and purpose in all things every day, good and bad, ugly and beautiful.
  • In our age of fake news and the crumbling of old certainties Pilate’s ancient question, “what is truth?” is ever so relevant again. Even the Church is not spared this piercing question as it grapples with massive loss of members, credibility, and revelations of abuse. What if truth resides in the quality of relationship — to life, to this planet, to one another? I’m trying this out for awhile.
  • Electing our new Indigenous bishop Chris was a great experience; his arrival as a messenger of reconciliation and a bridge-builder bodes very promising for our Anglican diocese and beyond.
  • Living below one’s means creates a freedom the world truly cannot give. It’s oddly easy to stay clear of the traps of over-spending and consuming when it’s an attitude/perspective fostered over a life-time, not to mention the light ecological footprint and the effect on the wallet. It does lead to an odd problem, though: we don’t create enough garbage or recycling materials to fill the bins we pay the city for! But we admit, it takes all kinds: the economy would be in even worse shape if it depended on frugal spenders such as us!
  • Being a country priest with a dedicated band of Anglicans and Lutherans is all and more than I had imagined, and Catholics are coming along for the ride. Weekly Eucharist and preaching, ecumenical studies and worship, baptisms and funerals (no weddings yet), hosting weekly (free!) summer BBQ suppers for the town, pastoral care and counseling — a rich spiritual harvest. Good energy among parishioners, renovating the church hall, planning for great things in the new year.
  • Not everything was roses. The murder of our cousin Kim’s husband shook us all to the core. No amount of tears can hold the sorrow and loss.
  • Our God-daughter Josephine married Brody this past summer, inviting me to preach holy words at their celebration. Blessings of joy galore and a great wedding party on the farm.
  • Jim is still helping Rachelle with the seed business, but managing a slower pace while mentoring his young, energetic and passionate successor. Some of our kids have discovered a new role for their night-owl Dad: they phone him on late nights, sometimes  to be accompanied on long drives.
  • I saw signs of limits to inclusiveness; some call them boundaries, others call them barriers. Why does including some often seem to happen at the exclusion of others? There’s got to be a better way.
  • Year-round exercise of choice: lane swimming. I’m the slowest swimmer in the pool, so every 20 lapse feels victorious, rewarded with time in the hot tub!
  • Two weeks in Israel with my bishop and clergy colleagues was a true gift — walking where Jesus walked, getting to know my colleagues better (a glass of wine in a warm climate does wonders!), and growing a disturbing realization of the plight of our Christian sisters and brothers: The Not-So-Holy Land.
  • Even with my Sunday church duties, Jim and I enjoyed a record number of four Christmas concerts in one weekend, each one outstanding. What a talent on the prairies!
  • My first meeting with the national Anglican-Roman Catholic Dialogue of Canada (ARC Canada) in Ottawa was substantial, inspiring and so much fun, including a surprising renewal of old friendships. Working for Christian Unity continues to be my passion, integral to my ministry and my vision of church.
  • The best bread in town is still the one kneaded with my own hands, with flour milled from Jim’s home-grown grains, and coming out of my own oven — oh, that smell … it’s the one foolproof baking I can muster.
  • Praying for others is powerful and rich, esp. when writing down the daily intentions and mentioning others by name. Pray for people far and near, for victims of disasters and violence of all kind, and for friends and family struggling with too much, helps keep helplessness and despair at bay. Praying for others grows our heart softer, bigger and more compassionate, fostering real-time connections, collapsing all distance.

We are painfully aware that life delivers too many blows to too many people, stretching to the breaking point one’s capacity to see and savour blessings. In this year’s season of Advent waiting in hope, we have learnt of a suicide, a stripping of job and reputation, legal challenges in a custody case with devastating effects on the children, a tumbling back into alcohol and drug abuse after a 10+ year sobriety, betrayal by church leaders, painful diminishment in aging, terminal diagnoses, all within our own circle of love. Not to speak of the horrors millions face daily across the globe. Life is fragile, vulnerable as we all are to unexpected and unmerited chaos and disaster. And yet, as I wrote in my previous blog post, we need a vision to inspire us, to motivate going on living. The birth of Jesus still gives us this vision.

As we celebrate Christmas this year, we hold in our hearts and minds both the pain of the world and the vision of God in Jesus. In the birth of Jesus God became one of us – that is the most radical and most beautiful gift the world has ever received, no matter how much the Church has tainted this message with its own sinfulness. Divinity came among us as a tiny, helpless baby for whom there was no room anywhere. Born to a young teenage virgin and a dedicated foster father forced to take his little family to Egypt to protect the child from brutal murder — not unlike millions of refugees on the run today. A teenage mother, an outcast from birth, a refugee in infancy – that is our God, throwing in his lot with all the scrawny and needy ones among us.

This is the vision going with us into 2019. This vision is our prayer and our wish for us all. Ready for Christmas? You betcha!

Marie-Louise and Jim

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The Ordaining Church

I looked out over the crowd that had filled the Anglican Cathedral on an ordinary Thursday evening. I was amazed, surprised, overwhelmed. They had come, from everywhere, in droves: friends and family, colleagues and ecumenical co-workers. The church catholic was present in its fullest sense: Pentecostal, Baptist, Mennonite, United, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Anglican and Roman Catholic (with the exception of the Orthodox tradition*). Especially Roman Catholic: a sea of them along with religious sisters, several priests and one higher ranking official. The happy grins spoke volumes: I was not the only one who had looked forward to this moment.

In the midst of this ecumenical community of faith I claimed my call before the bishop, made vows and promises, and knelt for the “holy huddle” – Anglican, Lutheran, United and Presbyterian clergy colleagues as well as two RC priests joining the bishop in the solemn laying on of hands.

Ordained a priest. I still struggle to find the words. The impact of the experience was profound. It was profound in my own heart-mind-spirit, in my experience of church, and in the effects upon my current ministry. Given the ecumenical make-up of the assembly that night, I felt truly ordained by and into the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church in the fullest sense of that term. I have not recovered from the experience – and I hope I never will.

I have always been mindful of the faith community’s role when one claims a call to ministry; one is called by and for the community, never for oneself. Now this crucial role was expressed in the most tangible way possible – the community’s presence and participation was their fiat. A deepening and affirmation, blessing and mandate all rolled into one holy Spirit-filled act of ordination. No wonder I still struggle to find words.

The next morning I presided over the (Anglican) Holy Eucharist for the first time in a Catholic retreat center, which included a renewal of marriage vows for Jim and I – it was our wedding anniversary. Like the night before, the people of God in all denominational diversity packed the worship space, hungering for a taste of heaven where divisions and barriers melt away: take and eat, take and drink, all of you.

Maybe a number of firsts occurred: RC clergy joining in the laying on of hands, one of whom bowing his head for my first priestly blessing; a religious sister leading music at the Anglican Eucharist the next morning while persons from various traditions served as acolyte, readers, communion assistants; communion bread baked by an Anglican-RC couple; those with different beliefs finding a space of respect and hospitality while getting caught up in the joy and gratitude of the occasion.

That I may at last taste the joy of fulfilling this vocation still feels like a miracle. What seemed elusive for several decades has come to pass. At the same time it was always there, for the priestly call lived in my heart as an animating light, a wellspring of grace and love. For this was the peculiar thing: despite the church’s prohibition, the call persisted. Moreover, despite the fear and self-doubt, the call grew me on the inside in ways that bore all the fruits of the Spirit — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Gal. 5:22-23)

A priestly vocation originates at the deepest level of one’s being, which is one’s essence. Roman Catholic sacramental theology calls it an ontological reality, an indelible mark on the soul. Years ago I spoke with a Roman Catholic friend who had left the priesthood because, as he said, he had all the external affirmation but none of the internal reality. To which I replied with new insight, “Yes, and I have all the internal reality but none of the external blessing/affirmation.” “I know,” he replied. Surprised, we looked intently at one another with waves of recognition, understanding and respect.

And so when the final report on the validity of my priestly call was issued by the national Anglican Church’s assessment body, a year ago now, opening the path to ordination, the tears refused to stop:

We find Marie-Louise to have a clear sense of call to the priesthood, a call which has developed in extraordinary circumstances over the past 27 years … This growing sense of call took place in the context of a lifelong faithful involvement in the Roman Catholic Church.

Marie-Louise has an impressive history of lay ministry in the Roman Catholic Church, demonstrating visionary leadership in the development of numerous ministries, which responded to particular needs in the church. Her involvement in ecumenical initiatives is most remarkable, beginning many years ago with studies at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon.

We were impressed with her deep Christian faith and her struggle over many years to be faithful both to the ecclesial tradition she has grown up in and her growing sense of call to priestly ministry. We affirm Marie-Louise’s call to the priesthood. She is a passionate servant of Christ and has a sincere desire to serve God in an Anglican context. (ACPO Report, May 2017)

No matter which denomination does the ordaining, the ontological truth, the imprint on the soul, presses deep; it feels like coming home to one’s true self. Even my friend Carmen, just ordained last month in the Pentecostal tradition, speaks of this reality in her recent blog reflection.

What’s more, nothing is wasted in God’s economy. I am now pastoring two rural parishes, Anglican and Lutheran. All the pieces of my life’s puzzle have come together: formation and ministry experiences of the past 27+ years are all bearing fruit in these two small parishes on the Canadian prairies – who would have thought.

Living Christian discipleship in the Anglican household of God now is opening new spiritual vistas and blessings. My heart is growing larger, unfolding like an expanding universe. My capacity to live from contradictions into paradox and relational truth is being stretched, deepened and refined. How do I know all this is from God? Because my joy has never been deeper, my love has never been more costly and intently, my spirit has never been more generous, my peace has never been more solid, even in the midst of chaos and turmoil.

Meanwhile my Roman Catholic family of origin continues to occupy a cherished place in my heart; in her bosom my faith was nourished and my vocation was born against all odds. I truly live a double belonging. The increasing opportunities for joint ministry with my local Catholic priest and his parishioners are therefore sources of deep joy and immense gratitude, weaving unity in my spirit and among our people.

We don’t make journeys like this in isolation. I extend therefore a heartfelt thanks for the company and friendship, prayers and support of so many on this road towards priestly ministry. It truly takes a community to call a priest/pastor. Pray that I will continue to fulfill this sacred trust faithfully, placing my priesthood at the service of the full visible unity of God’s one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.

  • This is an expanded version of the last column (May 9, 2018) in a twelve month series entitled Double Belonging, co-published by the Prairie Messenger (ceasing publication) and the Saskatchewan Anglican from May 2017 to May 2018.
  • * The Orthodox tradition is active in ecumenical dialogues and circles, but my personal connections do not include many members of this branch of the Christian family.

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Mysterium Tremendum

It’s that time again — musing about Eucharist, ordination and church. After all, my own ordination to the diaconate is approaching. It has been a long journey to this time and place; a deep joy and fullness is overtaking my heart. At the same time, I find my heart super-sensitive to critical comments. I was stung by one recently that went something like this:

A friend cited two reasons for not taking communion in an Anglican church. First he highly doubted whether Anglicans really believe in transubstantiation, i.e. that they truly believe to receive the actual body and blood of Christ. Second, he feels that he cannot receive in a church that is not “in communion” with Rome.

I replied by referring to the substantial agreement on the Eucharist that exists between Roman Catholics and Anglicans. The following excerpt is taken from one of these agreements: “We believe that it is of utmost importance for the clergy and laity of our two Churches to acknowledge their substantial identity in the area of Eucharistic doctrine, and to build upon it as they go forward in dialogue. Whatever doctrinal disagreements may remain between our Churches, the understanding of the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist is not among them.”

“I’m not interested in ecumenical documents,” my friend fired back. “I’m interested in the actual beliefs of the people. A lot of Anglicans don’t even think it is a Mass. And the idea that the Mass is a sacrifice is not one of the key elements of Eucharistic theology as far as I am concerned. You either believe in transubstantiation or you don’t. And the Anglican church, as a whole, does not. Individuals within it do. That’s not a position that makes any logical sense as a basis for inter-communion.”

The exchange stung, piercing the bone of my heart. The above comments cut to the heart of my own experience of and faith in the Eucharist as well as my 25-year journey with a priestly calling. In less than eight months, I will be presiding at the Eucharist as a priest in the Anglican Church, pronouncing the sacred words in the community of faith: “This is my body, my blood.” I continue to cherish my Catholic faith, especially in the Eucharist.

First of all the argument about being “in communion” with Rome. While respecting the RC position on this, I also know there is no Scriptural foundation for the ecclesial communion concept the way it is applied to receiving the Eucharist in one another’s churches. I know that Rome consistently holds that unity at the Eucharistic table can only arise as a result of ecclesial unity. But that does beg the question: how do we know that we have achieved enough unity to share the table of the Lord? And who gets to determine this? We now have some substantial and significant ecumenical agreements between Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans and Lutherans that clearly state that the current differences no longer need to be church dividing.

Moreover, the Gospels portray Jesus as sharing himself indiscriminately with all types of people, regardless of criteria for full communion. It is Pope Francis who insists that we trust the unifying and healing power of the Eucharist as a “powerful medicine for the weak.” So continuing to limit access to this unifying and powerful medicine in one another’s churches seems to set up a contradictory logic. The Eucharist is Jesus’ banquet of complete self-giving; he is the host, the church is merely its servant.

The fact that some Anglicans deny the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist does not make it official Anglican theology nor is it an exclusively Anglican phenomenon. Roman Catholic theology holds fast to the same understanding of Real Presence in the Eucharist, yet some Catholics are sharing the same doubt and ignorance that my friend is so quick to place at the feet of my Anglican sisters and brothers. Is Jesus really more fully present in a Roman Catholic Eucharist than in an Anglican one? Both traditions cite the literal Words of Institution within Eucharistic Prayers that bear close family resemblance. Rather than argue about which Eucharist has more of |Jesus, should we not be more concerned with “reverse transubstantiation” as Kelly Pigott explores so poignantly in an article with a rather misleading title?

And what role does the faith of the communicant play in grasping this concept of Real Eucharistic Presence? The Anglican reverence for the individual’s capacity of faith allows for the person to appropriate the Eucharistic mystery of Real Presence in whatever way they can. This comes through in lovely language in the prayer that accompanies the distribution of Holy Communion from the Book of Common Prayer:

The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life. Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith, with thanksgiving. The Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was shed for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life. Drink this in remembrance that Christ’s Blood was shed for thee, and be thankful. (Order for Holy Communion, Book of Common Prayer)

In her seminal work The Interior Castle St. Teresa of Avila said: Let us look at our own shortcomings and leave other people’s alone; for those who live carefully ordered lives are apt to be shocked at everything and we might well learn very important lessons from the persons who shock us. Our outward comportment and behaviour may be better than theirs, but this, though good, is not the most important thing: there is no reason why we should expect everyone else to travel by our own road, and we should not attempt to point them to the spiritual path when perhaps we do not know what it is. Even with these desires that God gives us to help others, we may make many mistakes, and thus it is better to attempt to … try to live ever in silence and in hope, and the Lord will take care of His own.

Do any of us really and fully grasp Jesus Christ’s self-giving to the point of death? I do not expect to ever fully exhaust the meaning of this profound mystery. Growing into Anglican spirituality is fostering within me a deeper humility along with a greater reticence to pass judgment on how others understand and live their Christian faith. Some will call this wishy-washy and “Anglican fudge.” But maybe one person’s maturing in faith only looks wishy-washy to those who feel overly secure in their own convictions. When all is said and done, I can only stand humbly before a mysterium tremendum.

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Miscarried or Still Pregnant?

This past Lent my parishes (Anglican and Lutheran) invited the local Roman Catholic parish to engage in a study on the Reformation. After all, 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the 16th century event that splintered western Christianity into a number of different church traditions, traditions that remain divided to this day. However, intense dialogue in the past 50 years and new agreements on key aspects of our Christian heritage have now ushered in a new era of rapprochement, one that needs to be shared and embraced by the ordinary disciples in all church pews.

It seemed timely and such a good idea to gather participants from three traditions to learn and discuss together about the events of the 16th century, acknowledge the significant agreements and convergence that has have been achieved through dialogue at the highest levels for the past 50 years, and to look towards a future of community and unity.

Now I tried very hard to remain realistic; I minister in a small prairie town so I had no illusions of this venture drawing a big crowd. Nevertheless, I was surprised when 14 people showed up for the first of five sessions. The numbers fluctuated somewhat each week but remained steady between 14 — 21 participants. This number was amazing; moreover, people were committed and open to learning. Hearing about the significant dialogues and agreements between our church traditions was a real revelation for most folks, one that clearly inspired and engaged them in new ideas and visions for the future.

To this effect, the parish study, designed by a Canadian Catholic-Lutheran working group and entitled Together in Christ, gave five clear directives to be discussed and endorsed by local churches. These same imperatives were agreed to and signed between the Lutheran World Federation and the Vatican in a joint worship service in Lund, Sweden, on October 31, 2016, attended by Pope Francis himself:

  1. Catholics and Lutherans should always begin from the perspective of unity and not from the point of view of division in order to strengthen what is held in common even though the differences are more easily seen and experienced.
  2. Lutherans and Catholics must let themselves continuously be transformed by the encounter with the other and by the mutual witness of faith.
  3. Catholics and Lutherans should again commit themselves to seek visible unity, to elaborate together what this means in concrete steps, and to strive repeatedly toward this goal.
  4. Lutherans and Catholics should jointly rediscover the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ for our time.
  5. Catholics and Lutherans should witness together to the mercy of God in proclamation and service to the world.

This major step towards mutual recognition at such a high church level definitely moves the process towards full visible unity closer to its goal. There was, however, a slight problem in our local Lenten study, one that the group became more vocal about as we approached the last session. The majority of the participants had been Lutheran and Anglican! Despite support from the RC parish priest, alternating meeting venues between Lutheran and Catholic parish halls, and weekly notices in parish bulletins, the Catholic participation remained extremely weak (with the exception of one session which saw six Catholic participants but most didn’t return) and even zero at one session 😦 . It was painful and the group lamented this vacuum, feeling as if stood up on a date. After all, the study was designed as a conversation between Roman Catholics and Lutherans (Anglicans came along for the ride). What could possibly account for this Catholic absence/disinterest?

And so when there’s a vacuum in reasonable explanation, the mind begins to speculate:

  • Were Catholic lives busier than Lutheran or Anglican lives and so they couldn’t make time for this?
  • Do Catholics remain fearful to engage too closely with “those” other Christians?
  • Are Catholics insulated from other Christians and don’t feel a need for serious engagement?
  • Are Catholics unaware of the monumental changes brought about through 50 years of ecumenical dialogues and agreements?
  • Do Catholics still believe the RC Church is the only true church, making ecumenical dialogue unnecessary?
  • Are Catholics overly obedient to papal authority and may fear losing this if engaging in ecumenical conversations?
  • Have Catholics inherited the historical disdain for Protestants through an ecclesial gene pool stretching five centuries now?

I’m still pondering whether this was a huge missed opportunity on the Catholic side, an ecclesial miscarriage of sorts, or if we are still pregnant with potential dialogue and conversation. The group that gathered decided to give the Catholics the benefit of the doubt and is opting for the latter. The group is currently preparing a letter addressed to the local Catholic parish community, indicating how much their voice and participation was missed and could we please talk.

By way of closing the 5-week Lenten study we shared, even if only with less than a handful of Catholics, we did mark Good Friday together with a joint Lutheran-Catholic-Anglican worship service. It seemed appropriate to come to the cross of Christ in contrition and humility. Lord, O Lord, have mercy.

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I Wonder as I Wander

This past spring, in a meeting with the Anglican — Roman Catholic International Commission, Pope Francis pointed out that working toward the restoration of full unity between Christian traditions is not optional but is an urgent summons of Christ himself. This was not the first time Pope Francis made such comments. In the nearly three years of his pontificate the Holy Father has taken every possible opportunity to stress this summons.

I am immensely grateful for his words. My many years of ecumenical ministry have given me numerous friends in a wide variety of Christian traditions. But more importantly, these involvements and precious relationships have greatly expanded my understanding of church. I have come to realize that it is only together that we reflect the fullness of the Gospel message. It is only together that we can credibly proclaim Christ’s saving love and mercy in an increasingly skeptical world. In fact, the task of unity among churches is a question of sheer survival in some parts of the world — see this article. We become a stronger witness when we learn to bind as one the various aspects of the witness of Jesus perfected in our respective denominations. Cardinal Emeritus Walter Kasper referred to this notion in a recent article as follows:

There is no ecclesiological vacuum outside the Catholic Church. Since Jesus Christ also works in and through the other Churches – and these often give clearer expression to individual elements of being church than the Catholic Church – the complete realization of Catholicity is only possible in ecumenical exchange and reciprocal enrichment. Catholic and ecumenical are therefore not opposites but two sides of the same coin. (Mercy is the medicine to heal the wounds of the ChurchCardinal Walter Kasper   – The Tablet, November 12, 2015)

Back in 1952, the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches met in Lund, Sweden. As the churches were searching together for the means of common witness, they asked each other earnestly whether they were doing all they could to manifest the oneness of the people of God: “Should not our Churches ask themselves whether they are showing sufficient eagerness to enter into conversation with other Churches, and whether they should not act together in all matters except those in which deep differences of conviction compel them to act separately?” The answer to this urgent question has become known as the Lund Principle. This means that Christians and churches should try to act  as much as possible ecumenically, in particular, to bear witness together to a common life in Christ.

Ecumenical involvement, therefore, is by no means limited to experts and scholars. In fact, much of the real ecumenical work occurs among ordinary people in the pews – the rubber-hitting-the-road type of stuff. Last year I was part of a Lutheran-Roman Catholic Dialogue process. Seven Lutherans and seven Catholics (chosen from the pews) met on a regular basis to read and discuss together the new document entitled From Conflict to Communion, a text written by an international Lutheran–Catholic dialogue group in preparation for the year 2017, the year which marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

The text bears witness to the good news that we are finally living in a season of reconciliation between our churches, a reconciliation which allows us now to tell the story of the  500 year old break-up together. Given the length of this separation and the centuries of mutual disregard, each tradition developed in isolation from and in contrast to the other. Fortunately, the time of such mutual distrust and condemnation is behind us and the time of recognizing our common faith in Jesus has been ushered in.

Thus was created From Conflict to Communion – the title aptly captures the reconciling movement and growing convergence  between churches. Our group participants would prepare  assigned reading at home; then we would gather to discuss and learn together by bringing questions and insights, as well as joys and sorrows about being Lutheran and being Catholic. The experience was electric; friendships were born, understanding grew through conversations which made dry words leap off their pages and take on flesh in real people’s lives.

This past spring another ecumenical milestone was reached in Saskatoon with the creation of a Common Statement of Faith. This text is the fruit of local dialogue meetings which took place over three years between 10 representatives from Evangelical Churches and 10 members of the Roman Catholic Church, both clergy and laity. Formal dialogues between mainline Christians and Evangelical Christians are not as old as some of the other dialogues, but they are a fresh expression of increasing numbers of Christian sisters and brothers desiring to come together in order to encounter Jesus Christ in one another’s faithful worship and witness.

And lo, as I am walking the “road to Canterbury” another delightful gift has recently been prepared for the people of God in the pews, this time from the Anglican-Roman Catholic Dialogue in Canada. A unique series of short videos featuring Anglican and Catholic presenters offer “small answers to big questions.” The series is entitled Did you Ever Wonder? and can be found here. Each 8-minute presentation is followed by a few discussion questions at the end of the video. The series is an ideal recipe for a delightful encounter with fellow Christians. I wonder as I wander … is it thanks to my expanded experience and understanding of church that my current transition to the Anglican Church does not feel like a “leaving”?

Some seasoned professional ecumenists have called this era a winter of sorts in ecumenical relations. But this brief sampling of recently produced resources, themselves the fruit of faithful discipleship in Christ, indicates anything but a winter. Clearly even in winter we walk together, and never more so than among ordinary people in the pews. So if you have been wondering about “those Christians in other churches,” be bold. Go knock on their door, attend their worship or invite them to yours. Then suggest that you meet for shared prayer and learning; delve into From Conflict to Communion (if nothing else, at least study the Five Ecumenical Imperatives in its last chapter), propose a joint prayerful study of the Common Statement of Faith, or enjoy some of the lovely online videos produced by the Anglican–Roman Catholic Dialogue. Other Christians belong inside our comfort zone instead of outside of it, even if their Gospel expressions challenge us. There is no more excuse not to know each other, no more excuse not to befriend each other. There is no more lack of resources and study materials, no more excuse not to see Christ in one another. Pope Francis himself says so: it is an urgent summons of Jesus Christ whom we all profess as Lord and Saviour.

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